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Buddy, how the heck do I build a business?

By Leo Valiquette

What does it take to build a successful business from scratch without selling your soul to the venture capitalists? Pretty much what it takes to turn any vision into reality – persistence, optimism and thinking first about qualifying the market demand for what you want to offer.

Last night at the Marshes Golf Club, six local entrepreneurs, a couple fresh out of school, the rest somewhat grayer, manned a panel to discuss how they developed their individual businesses without the aid of venture capital dollars. The event was called Buddy keep your Million – but buy my product! To my mind, their insights are key to the success of any venture regardless of who is filling your bank account.

First up was the energetic Aydin Mirzaee, founder of bOK Systems Corp. and Chide.it. For him it’s all about persistence. He told the story of how Col. Sanders, a retiree not so keen about living on a fixed income, hit the road with his family chicken recipe and endured over 1,000 rejections before finding a restaurant willing to pay him royalties.

Next came the equally young and enterprising Kareem Sultan of RaceDV. The right mentor made all the difference for him. In this case, an employer who encouraged him to use his downtime at work to pursue his interests and to “go out and learn something.”  When things began to move along, his employer continued to help him incubate his idea, and, most importantly, allowed him to retain full ownership of his intellectual property.

Moving down the line came a more seasoned entrepreneur, Scott Lake, founder of Jaded Pixel and Shopify. With his focus on open-source software development, he puts a high premium on cultivating a passionate community following around a product to generate word of mouth and provide user feedback. But in addition to that, it must be an interactive communication, in which your developers have a dialogue with this community. It’s all about harnessing the power of social media.

Next up was Paul Slaby. His latest role is CEO of Kaben Wireless, but he has a long track record in Ottawa, with start-ups that include ATMOS and VoIPShield. What he found when he arrived at Kaben was a very strong engineering culture that needed to refocus on sales and marketing. Customer money is the best money to have he said, and one of the most effective ways to get it is to develop the services side of your business early. For him, that has translated into joint ventures on product development and providing that partner with outsourced R&D services with a running royalty arrangement.

For the next speaker, Wael Aggan of TradeMerit, one truth has been self-evident since his first venture in Egypt more than 30 years ago—define a market niche first, figure out how you will engineer a product to fill that need second. His preference is always to define a niche and dominate it, rather than pursue a broader market opportunity where there might already be established incumbents or too much open playing field for “me too” rivals to muscle in.

Lastly, Rob Lane of Overlay.TV discussed how it was the right choice for his company to secure venture capital financing. For the market his company is trying to tackle and the big incumbents that are already there, an infusion of VC cash was the only way for his company to generate adequate market momentum. However, his message is that each individual must first define what success means for them. Is it a $1-million venture, a $10-million venture, or a $1-billion one? (And of course, VCs won’t bother with anything that doesn’t have the potential to become at least a $100-million enterprise). He also stressed the importance of global networking thanks to the dramatic impact of social media.

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What bloggers want

By Danny Sullivan

A lot of PR people seem to be a little nervous when it comes to dealing with the blogosphere. There exists a sentiment that there is some kind of black magic at play – and if you don’t know the magic words you might end up spending the rest of your days as a toad flack.

Fear not. Bloggers are not really any different from the media – they have the same interests, in the same topics and, for the most part, respond to PR in a similar way to the media. If approached, they are not (usually) inclined to destroy your fledgling career with a casual flick of their wand.

There are certainly some ways to make your life easier when dealing with blogs, but none of these are unique to the space. Like the media, bloggers prefer to know about stories in advance, so embargoes are appreciated and usually honoured without question. And in the same way as the broader media despise receiving news that is irrelevant to them, so too bloggers rail against such indiscretions. Basically, if something usually pisses the media off, then you can be pretty sure it’ll piss off a blogger too.

In fact, continuing to refer to bloggers and the media as two separate entities is probably well past its sell-by date. The large numbers of media sites that have now recast themselves in a blog-style format is surely proof enough of this. They must be considered one and the same by PR people and should not be avoided out of fear of the unknown.

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Propagating the Ottawa startup community

By Francis Moran

The official theme was “Ottawa’s digital media industry,” and the gamers, social networkers and content developers were there in spades. But what I heard at Wednesday night’s regular Start-up Drop-in put on by The Ottawa Network at LaBarge Weinstein had as much or more to do with propagating and supporting the entire start-up — indeed, the entire technology — community in Ottawa than it did with digital media per se.

In keeping with the format now well established by LWLaw partner and event host James Smith, we heard briefly from several different actors before the headline act shared what is billed as “words of wisdom.”

First out of the gate was a quartet of self-described “next generation” entrepreneurs who see themselves as having a serious role to play in cultivating and supporting their fellow tech entrepreneurs. Putting their blogging skills where their mouths are, they run StartupOttawa.com, an active blog by and about the start-up community. Mercury Grove‘s Scott Annan, Shopify‘s Scott Lake, TravelPod‘s Luc Levesque and Jean-Sylvain Sormony of Fuel all talked about the importance of cultivating “our generation of entrepreneurs,” as Lake put it.

Two start-ups whose very business model is all about propagation went next.

David Thompson described his company, Noleo, and its platform that hosts social networking applications, allowing them to simply and simultaneously run on a number of social networking sites, including Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. Alan Isfan’s FaveQuest is also all about propagating content across social networking sites, in this case taking broadcast television material and packaging it for redistribution to the social networking ecosystem.

Ben Houston, a fascinating young developer whose computational magic has been seen in several Hollywood movies, was an example of the propagational potential of the Start-up Drop-in itself since that’s where, a few months ago, he first met Keith Taylor, the business executive he has now recruited as president of his company, Exocortex Technologies.

I was momentarily stuck when Distil Interactive CEO Robert Thompson began to share his words of wisdom since it was not immediately clear to me how his comparison of Ottawa to other tech-savvy centres in which he worked would fit into my propagation theme. But his talk was really about challenging the 50 or so company leaders and managers in the room to propagate their obvious enthusiasm, commitment and empowerment throughout the rest of their company employees and, indeed, throughout the rest of the community.

It was a high energy evening, as have been the last several of these drop-ins.

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